Static Between Stations
American Analog Set is 'Set Free'
Andrew Kenny is slight but stoic, his hands barely grazing the strings of his guitar as he coaxes lyrics from the microphone with a voice so calming it opiates. Ever so gently, his imagery takes flight, gliding over sea and sky, creating rhythm out of syllables. Once Kenny crumpled under the weight of his eloquence, but now as a veteran songwriter, his tunes are poetry. He stretches and recoils with the cool brisk flow of the drums, pulsating as the bass hums to itself. He's surrounded by family on stage, and that's only one testament to the soundness of American Analog Set.
The limestone wall of Club de Ville begs for the band's silhouettes, and on this hot August night, heat meshing with sweat and humidity so there's no telling which is which, the outdoor patio on Red River is buzzing with it's-been-so-longs and where've-you-beens. It's a low-key reunion, one where the parents are invited and the kids don't mind. All the sounds blend together graciously, with decibels so contrite that a low roar replaces the distinctly separate instruments.
In and out of albums The Golden Band, Know by Heart, Promise of Love and emotion: pain, pledge, love, longing. It's the quietest an AmAnSet crowd has ever been, beginning the moment the five band members quietly walked on stage to the first chords of "Fuck This ... I'm Leaving," an opener if ever there were one. The final song on new LP Set Free is more motivation than rebellion. AmAnSet isn't particularly rebellious in the classic sense.
"Immaculate Heart" moves percussionist Sean Ripple to bounce, as is his m.o. Behind him, Lee Gillespie is hunched over the bass, his back all that's visible. Mark Smith flogs the skins with brushes as Kenny descends a length of dissonant chords that seem destined. Craig McCaffrey's black-rimmed glasses barely peek over his double-stacked Rhodes keyboards, the song ebbing and flowing with the rhythm of a midnight locomotive.
As the groove of "New Drifters II" lulls the crowd into a euphoric trance, some begin to drop off. And so kicks in a typical Analog Set show: hardcores up front, chatterboxes in the back. It's become law over the last decade. You can't escape the talkers. Still, Kenny's face is smeared with that sly, peaceful grin; the thoughts skipping behind his closed eyes must be merciless.
The hat trick lies in Know by Heart closer, "We're Computerizing and We Just Don't Need You Anymore." It begins innocently enough, vibes echoing monotonous strumming. No bass is heard, but slowly the volume rises, as Gillespie fades in additional layers of sound on his four-track until all eyes are on the stage. Who knew the lullaby act could reverberate with the burn of a thousand steam engines?
The Golden Band
Ten years ago to the day of that Club de Ville performance, on a small stage in Dallas, four twentysomethings who must've stared holes into their Converse and strained to get the notes out correctly birthed what became a Lone Star enigma: ethereal pop that boiled to the point of evaporation and then rained back down again. The intervening decade has provided springboard and chicken wire to the now fivepiece act, well past the point of youth and entering veteran territory.
Kenny, Gillespie, and Smith, with longtime friend Lisa Roschmann on keys, founded AmAnSet with a deep, abiding respect for melody, harmony, rhythm, and silence, and while that blanket was rewoven many times over the years, the core ideal remains intact. Tom Hoff eventually replaced Roschmann, and upon becoming a family man, gave way to McCaffrey a little more than two years ago. Everyone eventually moves on; Roschmann and Hoff just beat the others to the punch.
"The sound hasn't really changed very much other than adding percussion and vibraphone six years ago," shrugs Kenny. "That just sealed the deal."
In 1999, Austin indie Emperor Jones released AmAnSet's third full-length, The Golden Band, an album many perceive to be the band's best and the one that served as introduction to Ripple's vibraphone. "Weather Report" and "Will the Real Danny Radnor Please Stand?" evoke the still heat of Austin summers while soothing the rash at the same time. Campfire songs of the disenchanted and lonely.
Whoever was in the band, whichever of the seven full-lengths was coming out that year, Andrew Kenny, aka Ken or Kenny, was always Oz the dreamer, mechanic, conductor. He wrote, played, and envisioned every Analog Set song to the point of perfection, a word that makes him cringe these days.
"Those are all Ken's songs," Gillespie emphasizes. "Sometimes I wish Ken would just leave the demos alone. His demos are so striking. I almost feel like having them be band songs kind of ruins them. It takes away from the power."
Tracks like "Danny Radnor" prove that Kenny needs no more than a guitar and a mic to vanquish anything ugly. He's produced all of the band's LPs, with the production alone on the new Set Free taking nearly a year to complete.
"I think the reason this record is so good is that the more time Ken had to spend alone on this, the more he got things exactly the way he wanted," Gillespie explains. "I like the record, and I like playing in the band, but I almost feel like it's a stronger record because of less input from us."
Two years ago, Kenny moved from Austin to New York to pursue his doctorate in molecular biology. The band was left guessing, along with everyone else in town, yet after Kenny decided to put his education on hold, Analog Set became stronger, recording most of the new album in ex-Austinite and Furry Thing Chris Michael's Jackson, Miss., studio, which actually makes Set Free the Set's first real studio album.
"Not to romanticize it too hard," says Ripple, "but there's a large amount of desperation that goes into a record where you're strewn about all over the place trying to figure out how to make it happen."
The recording situation was hard on everyone's pocketbooks. Kenny would fly into Austin or Mississippi, coordinating with McCaffrey, who was riding in from Chicago. Geographically challenged is what they call it.
"I really miss the days of driving to practice and not buying a plane ticket," Kenny laughs. "It's a huge difference. We're not very motivated people, but knowing that we've all had to chip in to buy these plane tickets in order to be together makes us a little more directed.
"I know whatever we do in the future is going to be a lot different, because we can't keep on like this forever. It's just too stressful. This being the last in the contemporary series of the Analog Set, I am so happy we took as long as we did, because I'm really proud of the way it turned out."
And the death knell sounds, though it might just be the anesthesia taking effect. After years of flying and scrimping for rehearsal time, American Analog Set is preparing to close another chapter of their lengthy career. Eighteen hundred miles was quite the strain.
Promise of Love
"Whenever I can sit in front of a piano or with an acoustic guitar and I like the way things sound lyrically, then it's done," explains Kenny, justifying the lengthy wait for Set Free. "Even then I'll sit on it for a month or two and make sure it's not totally hokey. I like a certain amount of cheese, and I've never written about politics or serious psychology. I've never drifted into Tori Amos territory. They've always been pop love songs to me."
Set Free is more than a pop record, though. It's an album of firsts: the first AmAnSet LP to begin immediately with Kenny's hushed, delicate vocals; the first album recorded in a studio; and the first platter on Canadian powerhouse Arts & Crafts (Broken Social Scene, Stars, Feist). It brims with confidence and patience, like every day of American Analog Set's life was leading toward this piece. All mushy soundscapes and dreamlike sequences swirled about in a boiler and exploding out the top. Simplicity ("She's Half") and complexity ("The Green Green Grass") combine to make something so real, it's no surprise Arts & Crafts jumped on it.
"It sounds horrible to say that we found them in our twilight years," winces Kenny, "but I was very clear to them what our general game plan was for the next three years."
That grand scheme includes one last full-blown tour, followed by random one-offs in the future, a tour-only 12-inch EP, and a second collection of B-sides and rarities, of which the band has loads. After that, who knows?
"We might not be a full-time band, we might not tour all the time anymore, but I still think we have some good records in us," drummer Smith enthuses. "It would still be nice for us to get together every once in a while and record."
After all, the Analog Set has endured two member changes, a full-band move, dissolution of home label Tiger Style, a European label nightmare, and this last national spread. There's no reason to doubt their ability to survive.
"It's just too expensive a hobby right now," Kenny opines. "In the independent music world, we're somewhat of a stable, known band. We have some name recognition, our tours are pretty successful, and our records do okay. But we spend all of our money flying around the country trying to be together.
"I don't see us ever doing another four-months-in-the-van tour like we're doing this fall. I love it, and we all have fun. It wasn't as much to ask from a 22-year-old; it's a lot to ask a 34-year-old that's planning on getting married, as some of us are."
That's life, reality rearing up again. Kenny's wedding is next May; Ripple's is scheduled closely behind. The sentimentalist songwriter is showing his colors.
"My quality of life increases when I can spend time watching a movie on the couch and eating popcorn," Kenny beams. "That's the bonus round for me, not just grabbing a dinner between her work and a show. It's the static between stations that makes a difference for me."
"It's funny that it's romantic to have a regular job," McCaffrey offers. "But it sounds pretty cool to me. What's funny is that the reason I became a [graphic design] freelancer in the first place is just so I could take time off and goof off. But then eventually, it becomes weird that you're not actually doing anything but working, so why aren't you working in something more stable and less stressful?"
When did reality become so quixotic?
"We all live with our girlfriends," Smith explains. "We're all either right at or on the wrong side of 30. We've been doing this for a long time. I don't see this being the end; I see it as going on the DL for a little bit."
"It's such a weird double-edged sword in that we've gotten better at being a band," Gillespie surmises. "But at the same time, when you wallow around at the level that we have for 10 years, you're just getting older and older, and it just peels more seconds off of your life every time you're out on tour, especially when you're still cramming five 30-year-old men into the van."
Touring has a knack of destroying bands. The Analog Set isn't quite to the destruction phase, but it's time for the coffee table to serve as footstool for a few months. The bank accounts need rest, and families and soon-to-be families deserve attention. This fall's jaunt is on the band's own terms: no unwanted openers, no rooms that aren't full, and no driving through the night just to make it to Dullsville, Okla. It's a well-deserved victory lap for the relentless road warriors.
"If we do stop [touring permanently], you won't hear about it. We'll just fade away," Smith promises. "At least that's my hope. I think it's a bit rich to announce, 'This is your last chance to talk through our show.'"
After the four-month stretch, Gillespie, Smith, and Ripple will return to Austin, each swearing to play music of some sort. McCaffrey will go home to the Windy City and to a full-time job if he gets his way. Kenny returns to Brooklyn, where the love of his life resides ("She's worth staying for and then some"), and eventually, he'll return to Columbia and finish graduate school. Just mention science, and he lights up like a burning ember popping off the cement.
"I can't remember people's names when I meet them, but I can remember all the steps of glycolysis," the aspiring lab scientist exudes. "Plus, [science] is everything I love about music: It's technical, there's a bit of voodoo involved, and there's a bit of faith that this molecular model that you believe in is true. You rely on it, just like you rely on other people. You don't know that Mark's going to hit his kick drum here, but you trust that he is. Also the repetition exists in both; there's no experiment that you do less than a million times before it works out. You usually have to have patience for repetition, which is exactly what our music is about. Not to mention the obvious similarities between my predisposition for tape, which is a linear recording format, as opposed to digital recording, which just puts data in different places on a hard drive and then puts them back together for you, whereas DNA is a molecule that is nearly infinitely rich in information, but it's linear. Out of order it makes no sense, just like if you rearrange randomly parts of a song, the beats wouldn't match up, things would be out of context, and it wouldn't be music anymore."
This is all coming out at 300 mph. Makes a little more sense now, though, right? The musical scientist, the dabbler, the idealist. The trouble is, science and music can't coexist. Give attention to one, and the other will indubitably starve. The future will serve as an experiment, as Kenny trots through the two, lasciviously toying with microscopes and potions while humming a new tune in his head. Maybe a new hypothesis will emerge; maybe test tubes will take the place of amplifier tubes and theory will take the place of practice. Hopefully, his dreams and those of all the Analogists will come to fruition in some manner, whether that be sacrificing one thing for another or beckoning compromise back home.
"I can look a few years down the road, and I can see things happening," Kenny optimizes. "I have many hard decisions to make."